by Celia Rees
Sometimes I find myself wandering in the YA section of the library and just meandering about. I usually leave with a few books, some of which end up being epic and brilliant and amazing, and others end up being overly-complicated, overly-dramatic, and over-the-top. Unfortunately, Sovay is going to fit neatly into the latter category.
For those of you who don’t want to read spoilers, this book is going to get a 1/5. It was honestly fairly dreadful. The first 2/3 were at least readable, but by the ending I was actually dreading picking it up, and had to force myself to finish (hoping against hope that some miraculous end would bring everything together… but no.)
I will say that one of the things about this book that really did irritate me was the constant introduction of arbitrary homosexuality. Can the highwayman take Sovay to a regular whore-house to find her some clothes? No, he takes her to a whore house of young boys dressed as women. There are constant comments about so-and-so being thus inclined, etc. At one point, Sovay’s brother comes home from Paris and greets her and their old friend, Gabriel. They’ve grown up together like siblings, we’ve already been told. Sovay’s maid is convinced that Gabriel has feelings for Sovay, but Sovay isn’t so sure. This is how the author writes the touching scene of Hugh’s homecoming:
“Hugh!” Gabriel burst into the room. “Mrs. Crombie told me you were here! I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you!”
“Or I you!” Hugh went over to meet him. “Old friend! I had not thought to see you here!”
Gabriel took his friend in a strong embrace and Sovay wondered if Lydia was right in her judgment of of exactly who was the object of Gabriel’s affection.
Really? How is that even vaguely a necessary comment? How about, Gabriel and Hugh have been life-long friends and Gabriel thought Hugh was dead and he’s not so they’re glad to see each other? Could that be a possible interpretation to this embrace? But no, it’s like that the whole way through the book, this constant, nagging, unnecessary undercurrent of homosexuality, and it irritated the bejeebers out of me.
Before the story, there is a poem, supposedly lyrics from a “traditional ballad” about a woman named Sovay who dresses as a highwayman and holds up the carriage in which her fiancee is riding. She then demands that he hand over a ring, which happens to be the ring that she gave him to prove her undying love. Well, the dude says that he would rather die than give up the ring, because it was a gift from his truest love, and of course Sovay says that that’s the right answer because if he had given up the ring she would have killed him.
Let’s be honest here: just reading that little ballad was almost enough to prevent me from reading the rest of the book. Because really? If someone held up my husband and demanded that he hand over his wedding ring, I would really rather have a live husband minus a ring than a dead husband still minus the ring because the thief is going to end up with the ring either way. But I digress.
In conclusion, for those not interested in my ridiculously long and ranty synopsis below: so many dudes, and yet zero actual romance; so many plot ideas, and yet no direction; so many characters, and yet no conclusions; so many villains, and yet no real triumph from the heroine. DREADFUL.
(For those who enjoy my rants about books that drove me crazy, and don’t mind spoilers, read below. :-D Be warned, it’s long, because I really, really enjoy giving a summary of books I didn’t like. It’s cathartic.)
And so, the book Sovay begins much the same as the ballad. Sovay is, apparently, engaged to a dude, but she’s pretty sure that he’s cheating on her, so instead of just confronting him or something, she decides to disguise herself as a highwayman and hold up his carriage. And unlike the ballad’s dude, this Sovay’s dude proves himself utterly false by handing over the ring without a qualm. Giving a ring to an armed and threatening highwayman does not, in my book, equate sexual unfaithfulness, but what do I know? Sovay is so angered by his betrayal that she attempts to shoot him, but is prevented from doing so by the other passenger in the carriage. Exit Sovay, stage left.
The next scene presents us with a painful interview with Sovay and her erstwhile lover, in which their engagement is irrevocably broken. We don’t hear any more about the fact that the dude’s been cheating on her, however; what we are now supposed to be upset about is that the dude has actually been pretending to be in love with Sovay so that he can gather evidence of treason against her father. Because, by the way, this is England during the French Revolution and everyone is a bit uptight and sensitive. Sovay’s father is no radical who desires to throw the king from the throne, but he does believe in treating his tenants well and following the Golden Rule, so instead of liking him, everyone hates him because he makes them look bad.
Enter Dude #2, the other passenger from the carriage. Dude #2 is an American, who is in England and France making contacts with the French and doing other super vague things that apparently allow him to wander the country at will. We never find out why he’s hanging out with Dude #1, because Dude #2 is Dude #1’s polar opposite and it makes no sense. Dude #2 tells Sovay that her father is in great danger and no one knows where he is. The author also tells us that Dude #2 thinks Sovay is beautiful and attractive and she thinks he’s pretty good looking, too, so you think to yourself, “Oho! Love interest?” Exit Dude #2, off to his mysterious wanderings.
Okay, so at this point, Sovay’s solution to the fact that she isn’t sure what’s going on is to continue to dress up like a highwayman and rob carriages in hopes that at some point she’s going to rob somebody who has important papers (?!?!?!?) so apparently she just starts tooling around the countryside every morning on her recognizable horse and most of the servants seem to know what she’s up to but she thinks she’s being super sneaky when she’s actually pretty much the worst sneaker in the history of sneakers, and that’s honestly one of the things that annoyed me the most about this book. Sovay was so bad at being the type of person the author wanted us to think she was.
So this goes on for an indefinite amount of time, even though it seems like it would have been a good idea to try and track down Dad or Sovay’s brother before this point, but, you know. So finally, after robbing lots of carriages (don’t worry, she doesn’t keep the money–she scatters it all over the ground around the countryside where she thinks poor people will find it) she finally robs a carriage and finds those mysterious papers for which she was hoping. And–gasp!–they include a warrant for her dad’s arrest.
Sovay dashes home and runs into Dude #3. Dude #3 is the son of their steward. He’s too poor and not the right class to really be able to marry Sovay, but it’s obvious that he pines. Apparently, he, Sovay, and Brother have all been best buddies since childhood. And since Dude #2 is apparently gone from the picture, you think to yourself, “Oho! Love interest??” Sovay tells him what’s in the pipeline and he is suitably distraught. When the angry mob shows up to arrest Dad (even though he’s not there) Sovay is able to turn them away because, guess what, they don’t have a warrant! It was stolen by a highwayman! The head of the angry mob, who happens to be Dude #1’s dad, shakes his fist and cries, “Foiled again!” Exit angry mob, stage right.
Sovay decides that it’s time to find Dad and Brother. “I must go to London!” she cries. In vain Dude #3 tries to dissuade her. In vain does he at least try to get her to ride there in the carriage like a decent woman. “There is no time to follow convention and tradition!” cries our heroine. “I must away!” And she dresses like a highwayman again, mounts her horse, and is off, telling her maid to follow ASAP in the carriage.
And that, my friends, is the first three chapters. From there, Sovay meets up with a legit highwayman (Dude #4), who is tall, dark and handsome (“Oho! Love interest??”) and he escorts her the rest of the way to London, where her maid is waiting (even though the reason Sovay couldn’t take the carriage with the maid was because the carriage would be too slow…???) and she finds out that Brother has disappeared, also, possibly to Paris.
At this point, we find out that Dude #1 and his dad are not the actual villains, as originally thought. Actually, it’s this random sinister dude named Dysart, who’s been creeping around creating a fiendish plot to take over England. Sovay has ended up with some of his important papers because of her highwayman adventures, and he doesn’t like it. After a whole lot more rambling around, and the reintroduction of Dude #2 (“Wait, is he going to be the love interest after all?!”) Dysart invites Sovay to a party out at his castle. Somehow, Sovay has managed to drag her lawyer into all of this, and the lawyer’s clerk, Dude #5. Meanwhile, the maid is in love with Dude #3 (the steward’s son, try to keep up here!) but she’s convinced that he actually loves Sovay. “Nonsense!” cries Sovay. “He is like a brother unto me!”
Well, Lawyer has realized that Dysart’s fiendish plot is to remove all of the moderate dudes who don’t want a full-on revolution but just a bit of tweaking to the system and get them all arrested for treason, so that the crazies can take over and start a revolution like the one in France and then Dysart & Co. can step in and take over whilst all is in chaos. Brother returns from Paris with word of Dad, who is ill and left behind in that ill-fated city. Brother is properly horrified by all that Dysart is planning. He, Sovay, Lawyer, Dudes 3 & 5, and Maid all decide that they’re going to go to the creepy house party Dysart has invited them to. Dude #4, who has been lurking in the background this whole time, toying with Sovay’s affections, has also decided to sneak in as well.
So you think this is going to be the big wrap-up, where they all end up in the villain’s castle and everything comes together. But instead, it all just muddles about and everyone wanders around in circles and Dysart has brought in all the boys from the gay whore-house because he’s going to have all the guests shag them and then he’s going to torture them to death or something? And turns out that Dysart is also an evil scientist and he’s been experimenting on people and torturing them and he’s got all this torture equipment in his basement and this lab up in a tower and pickled body parts and instead of just being a power-hungry villain, he turns out to be this insane, creepy, evil, disgusting, twisted, disturbed power-hungry villain with a fortress of a castle and it’s all a bit much.
And even though they’ve got the goods on him, Dysart wiggles out of the whole thing and Sovay, Brother, and Dude #2 all flee to Paris. There, they have to sneak around because everyone hates everyone. There, they meet up with Dude #6. (“Ha. She won’t fool me with any more of these potential love interests!”) Dude #6 is a misunderstood French soldier, caught up in the wild winds of change, yearning for the France he envisioned when the Revolution first began.
Well, turns out that Dad is now in jail and he’s super sick and they can’t go see them, so they basically just mill around Paris for a while. Sovay gets a letter saying that Maid has actually decided to marry Dude #5 (apparently, her love for Dude #3 has disappeared, which is good, because Dude #3 has decided that his life calling is to be a kind of traveling patriot who goes around helping people understand how amazing their lives could be if they all worked together.)
Meanwhile, Dysart has just kind of faded into the background. Like, they want to catch him and everything, but they aren’t sure how, and now the new villain is Robespierre and his evil henchmen and they arrest Sovay and she goes to jail but at least she gets to see Dad and then she’s going to get executed but Dude #2 pretends he’s her husband (oh, by the way, he just happens to remember at one point in the narration that he has a girl waiting for him at home?!) but that doesn’t work and they get sent to prison and are going to get killed the next day. Also in the meantime, Sovay actually did fall wildly in love with Dude #6 and they have like one lunch together and then he takes her out and snogs her and then she belongs to him “body and soul.” Say what!? Because I forgot to mention that there was this completely random scene when Sovay and Dude #4 (the highwayman) are running away somewhere and have to stay in the same room and she has a bad dream. Dude #4, who has been respectfully sleeping in the chair, gives her his coat as she suffers from the chill of fear.
He held her until she stopped shivering. “I’m going back to my chair now,” he said gently. “You should sleep.” He moved to disentangle himself from her. “We will have to be away in a few hours’ time.”
“Do you not like me?” she said very quietly. “Do–do you not want me?”
After the desolate horror of her dream, she longed for some human warmth, some show of affection. The darkness in the room gave her the courage to ask him for it.
What!? Dude #4 goes off on this speech about how he’s crazy about her but he’s a highwayman so he can’t make love to her and tarnish her pure (???) soul. And then like a month or two later, she now belongs “body and soul” to Dude #6. Whatever.
In the end, the night before their execution happens (conveniently) to be the night of Robespierre’s downfall, so they don’t get executed and everyone gets out of jail free and instead Robespierre gets the guillotine and guess who else just happens to be in town? Our old buddy Dysart, and he gets beheaded, too, and then that’s the end.
Yes, really. They walk away hand in hand. And then there’s an epilogue that says they lived happily ever after, and doesn’t bother to mention anyone else.
My conclusion was above in the pre-spoiler area, but in case you’ve forgotten it, since I’ve rambled on ridiculously forever–
So, in conclusion: so many dudes, and yet zero actual romance; so many plot ideas, and yet no direction; so many characters, and yet no conclusions; so many villains, and yet no real triumph from the heroine. DREADFUL, 1/5.